The first time I remember hearing a Bob Dylan song, two Bandra boys were singing it. Far off in America, my family listened to a cassette of my uncles singing Don’t Think Twice at one of the parties they used to throw: a happy circle of friends in a Mumbai suburb, picking guitars and swapping songs.
My mother played their version over and over again until we had memorised every note, every nuance of timing and tone. This, I realised, was how much we missed them.
I was a very small child, young enough to let the lyrics I didn’t understand wash over me but to hold fast to what seemed reassuring. Don’t worry, I thought, as I watched my mother sing along. In those days, early in her marriage to my American father, she still seemed surprised to find herself so far from her home and family. It was a distance she felt keenly for all the years I was growing up. But there were my uncles in perfect harmony, reminding us that “it’s alright.”
I could not have understood it was a song about the end of love, because in my experience – grandparents weeping at the airport, uncles sending hugs from across two oceans, my mother rewinding the song to hear it again – love did not end.
My father let her play the tape as often as she liked with no complaint. This, I saw later, was how much he loved her, because of course, he preferred the original. He had come of age in the Cambridge folk scene of the late fifties and early sixties, where Bob Dylan played clubs and occasionally Dad did too. For a short time, their paths crossed.
Eventually Dad took a job traveling through the American South to bring traditional musicans to the Newport Folk Festival, the beginning of his life as a festival producer. When Bob Dylan went electric in Newport in 1965, Dad was elsewhere on the site, helping country artist Cousin Emmy get to her stage. The next time Mr Dylan came to Newport was in 2002. Dad was the producer. Once the set was in full swing, he stood on the side of the stage, rapt. I don’t think they spoke that day, but I don’t think they had to. I will never forget Dad’s face.
My mother listened to music when she was driving or preparing meals, but my father listened to Bob Dylan the way other people read books, as though another world – vibrant, astonishing – had been conjured around him. He sat on the floor near the record player, fully absorbed, until one side ended and it was time to choose another.
I’ve been thinking of both my parents since the announcement that Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Surely he has.
Simple twist of fate
And maybe one measure of his genius is simply that his songs speak in such rich ways to such different people. No one can fully claim a Bob Dylan song, perhaps not even Bob Dylan. We come to them by our own crooked roads, the Bandra boys and the homesick immigrant, the festival producer and music lover, and the child I once was, listening to Joan Baez sing Farewell Angelina and thrilling to images I could not explain. It was one of my earliest experiences of poetry.
The songs, like their creator, have traveled the world. And if they sometimes seem to change as we hear them, it’s not only because of who’s performing them, but because of who’s listening.
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Picture a man with a long, easy stride moving through fields and forest and wilderness, crossing rivers and vaulting walls, never stopping, never still. Maybe when he gets tired, he leaps onto a train. He moves through a rich and varied terrain: sinewy folk and crashing rock, country, gospel, ballads, blues, a Christmas album, and lately, curiously to come, Sinatra standards. More than any musician in modern times, Dylan has been described in terms of change, and sometimes outright accused of it.
I suppose that man might seem restless. It’s certainly true that Dylan comes to his work with a vast and roving intelligence. But there’s something – not just in his vision, but in the heart of the endeavour itself – that is essential and constant.
Literature, at its most authentic, is an act of exploration. The writer does not always know where he is going, or what he is up to. He finds his way through the work because there is something to discover – not to prove or assert. He surprises himself.
Where others may see rifts or breaches, he feels, perhaps, a kind of continuum. He does not need to insist upon renewal because the art itself is a kind of renewal. To engage in that kind of exploration for more than five decades is an enormous enterprise, daring and spirited: the work of a great writer.
Tangled up in blue
“Literature is as old as speech,” said John Steinbeck, in an address after winning the Nobel Prize in 1962. “It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive.”
All stories began as song, especially American ones. Ballads from the British Isles took root in the New World, surviving in different forms on the cold shores of Cape Breton and the mountains of Appalachia. African music and dance crossed the Atlantic in slave ships, rhythmic laments and calls of defiance that led to spirituals and the blues. A first-class passenger on a 19th-century liner might travel with books, but in steerage, tales from home came in songs. Steinbeck’s good friend Woody Guthrie made his music a sacred space for the stories of migrants, union workers, farm hands, and dust bowl refugees. A generation after he rode the rails, my mother flew across the world with a recording of an American song that had come to evoke her Indian home.
Watching the river flow
I’ve come to work on music festivals also. A few years ago, I was talking to a musician who, at the time, had been playing in Dylan’s band for nearly eight years.
“What’s that like?” I asked.
We were in a cheap Mexican restaurant after a long journey, a tiring day. But he brightened at once.
“Those songs – you never get over them,” he said. “You’re standing there night after night and still you can’t believe the songs.”
I had asked that same question once before. By the time I was in high school, I’d learned that for a short while, a few months, maybe, Bob Dylan stayed in the apartment Dad shared with his sister Helen and Helen’s husband, Eric von Schmidt.
“What was that like?” I wanted to know everything. Did he have a notebook? Was he up all night writing? Had my father witnessed moments of oracular genius?
“All of us together…it was messy,” Dad told me. “We weren’t very tidy.”
That sounds about right. But I don’t ask that sort of question any more, even when I’m with people who work alongside him. Steinbeck was right: it’s the literature we need, more than ever; not the winds circling around it. And I like the way Dylan himself puts the work front and center. In the wake of the Nobel announcement, he has issued no public statement, only gone on performing.
Besides, I’ve read the books and looked at the photos, but it’s so hard to picture the kid who once slept on the sofa in my father’s place. Between that moment and this one, there are so many extraordinary songs, so much ground to cover. How could anyone have written them all? What a joy that Bob Dylan did.
Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter. She has also worked for several years in music production, most notably for festivals and concert series in New York, Newport, and New Orleans.